In What Sense do Cultures Evolve?

Tue, 10 May 1994 06:19:58 CDT

Graber writes that as a useful abstraction we can picture all the
subcultures within a society as its culture

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T. Riley detects confusion in my post responding to K. Hendrickson; I
think, however, that the confusion is T. Riley's and results from his
attempt to interpret political systems as more or less artificially
superimposed on cultures. My work has convinced me that we get further
by interpreting political evolution as one form of cultural evolution
that has resulted in larger and larger societies. He is correct that
some polities encompass great internal cultural variability; this can
make such polities highly unstable and prone to disintegration. I find
it convenient to use the term "subcultures" rather than "cultures" for
the distinctive socially acquired ways of life within political units.
For my purposes the great danger of referring to such internal variants
as "cultures" is precisely that it tempts one to imagine that the
evolution of larger and larger societies since the end of the
Pleistocene is peripheral rather than central to general cultural
evolution. As a useful abstraction, we can conceive of all the
subcultures within a society as its "culture,"just as cultural
evolutionists long have found it useful to conceive of all the cultures
in the world as humanity's "culture" at some point in time. My own
definition of "culture" emphasizes the society as the main culture-
bearing unit, but allows for its use for very tiny groups and for the
species as a whole: Culture is the socially acquired way of life of
a social group, especially an entire society's (1) interfaces with its
physical and social environments, (2) interactions--economically,
politically, domestically, and ritually--between members, and (3)
interpretations of reality. --Bob Graber